Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Six Great Societies

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

The Six Great Societies

Article excerpt

The rhetoric, which today seems so hollow, not because it is untrue, but because it is unaccompanied by action, shadow without substance, seemed then--as the decade of the sixties neared its midpoint--a description of possibility, a manifesto of intent. And, however foolish or arrogant the speeches and messages of the sixties sound, they are authentic, like faded daguerrotypes, a reminder to our more cynical age of that time when public service, the turbulent energies of a whole nation, seemed bursting with possibilities--conquer poverty, walk on the moon, build a Great Society. --Richard Goodwin (1989, 292)

On May 7, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson (or LBJ) gave a speech at Ohio University in which he invited his audience to help build "The Great Society": "It is a Society where no child will go unfed, and no youngster will go unschooled. Where no man who wants work will fail to find it. Where no citizen will be barred from any door because of his birthplace or his color or his church" (Johnson 1964a). On May 22, he fleshed out his vision for the Great Society at the University of Michigan. "The Great Society rests on abundance and liberty for all. It demands an end to poverty and racial injustice, to which we are totally committed in our time" (Johnson 1964b). The president laid out a program for the achievement of this goal by rebuilding America's urban infrastructure, clearing up environmental pollution, and improving schools. In Congress, Johnson and his legislative lieutenants moved to pass large quantities of social welfare legislation. They were extraordinarily successful. In the space of a few years, the president signed the Civil Rights Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and many other pieces of legislation.

The phrase the Great Society denotes, variously a slogan or shorthand, a utopia, a means, an end, an era, and a set of normative claims. (1) The term has been used in strikingly different ways by politicians, activists, and scholars since the Johnson era. This article tracks the changing meanings of the Great Society in order to clarify and formalize scholarly claims about the Johnson administration and the rhetorical presidency. Using Keith Donnellan's distinction between "attributive" and "referential" descriptions and Edward Sapir's conception of "condensation symbols," I create a typology of six Great Societies and trace the deployment of these six meanings through textual analysis of presidential speeches, newspapers, and scholarly writings. (2)

By distinguishing different meanings of the Great Society, this article contributes to the literature on presidential rhetoric that followed Neustadt's Presidential Power (Neustadt 1960; see also Sorenson 1979). The central question examined by this literature is whether presidents can influence public opinion using the "bully pulpit," and if so how (Cohen 1995; Edwards 2003; Kingdon 1995; Wood, Owens, and Durham 2005). Deploying sophisticated content analysis techniques, scholars examine the effects of presidential rhetoric in election campaigns, public policy, public opinion, and the operation of government (Rhodes 2013; Schonhardt-Bailey, Yager, and Lahlou 2012; Schroedel et al. 2013). But recently, attention has turned toward the production of presidential rhetoric as a dependent variable: the study of the antecedent conditions of presidential speeches and context in which he communicates (Arthur and Woods 2013; Lim 2002; Rowland, Payne, and Payne 1984). Literature in this latter category tends to deemphasize the role of the president as a political entrepreneur who sets his own agenda, focusing instead upon the institutional framework he inherits and the broader cultural context in which he struggles to assert his leadership (Skowronek 2011). This article considers changes in how Johnson, his newspaper allies, and critics used the rhetoric of the Great Society and what those changes indicate about Johnson, his programs and era, and the production of presidential rhetoric more broadly (Schuman, Corning, and Schwartz 2012; Zarefsky 2004). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.